Journalist turned author of meticulously crafted, compulsively readable crime fiction
Gavin Lyall was one of the most consistent British thriller writers of the past 40 years, bringing to his books a craftsmanship and professionalism that never became formulaic. He was a master of laconic dialogue, of plotting which was satisfyingly complex and rich in double bluffs and of unobtrusively sketched, often exotic, backgrounds. Above all he was a consummate storyteller and compulsively readable.
His first book, The Wrong Side of the Sky, appeared in 1961. He followed it with The Most Dangerous Game and Midnight Plus One and there were some 16 books in all. If The Wrong Side of the Sky, a tale of two shady pilots and stolen jewels, relied too much on technical detail at the expense of character, this was remedied in later books.
His early novels were straight adventure thrillers, often with an aviation flavour and depending on non-stop thrills. Typical was Shooting Script (1966) in which a pilot in the Caribbean gets involved in film-making and revolutions. Venus With Pistol (1969) drew on Lyall’s expertise in guns and moved, with his usual skill in plotting, from London to Vienna, by way of the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy. There was guns, too, in Blame the Dead (1972), which starts with the murder of a Lloyd’s underwriter in France and has its climax in Norway.
During the 1980s Lyall moved from action thriller to espionage, hitting his stride with four successive books, The Secret Servant, The Conduct of Major Maxim, The Crocus List and Uncle Target, which had the same central character. Through Major Harry Maxim, a former SAS officer who became security adviser to the Prime Minister, Lyall was able to explore the complex interaction of politics and the military, spending time at an officer’s mess in Germany and drawing on information discreetly supplied by a civil servant friend to get the detail right.
With Spy’s Honour (1993) Lyall began a new sequence of espionage thrillers, set in the years leading up to the First World War and featuring two Secret Service agents, an English Captain Ranklin and an Irish Corporal O’Gilroy. The two appeared again in Flight from Honour (1996), while Ranklin was still spying for England in Honourable Intentions (1999).
Gavin Tudor Lyall was born in Birmingham and educated at King Edward VI School. After National Service in the RAF, where he was a pilot officer, he went on to Pembroke College, Cambridge.
By now he had an urge to write and, after Cambridge, he embarked on a career as a journalist. One of his first jobs was with Picture Post, but the great days of the once celebrated news magazine were long over and after a year it ceased publication. But it was on Picture Post that he met another aspiring journalist, Katharine Whitehorn, who would make her mark on The Observer. They married in 1958. Meanwhile, to convince his future father-in-law that he would be able to provide for his new wife, he took a job on the Sunday Graphic.
But that, too, was in its death throes, whereupon Lyall moved to BBC Television and worked as a producer on the Tonight programme. After a year or so he joined The Sunday Times where he had a spell as air correspondent. He stayed with the paper until 1963 when the success of The Wrong Side of the Sky enabled him to take up writing full-time.
Lyall was happy to acknowledge the literary inspiration of such masters of the adventure yarn as Sapper and John Buchan, picked out Erskine Childers’s pre-First World War spy story The Riddle of the Sands as a favourite book, and expressed an admiration for American writers of the hard-boiled private eye school, such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. He wrote his books in the loft of a Victorian house in Chalk Farm, North London, amid desks cluttered with paper and the charts and files from which he worked out his narratives with a military precision. He researched his plots and locales, carefully but not obsessively, spending, say, a fortnight in Norway or ten days in Cyprus, absorbing the atmosphere and taking notes.
One of his early books included a chase sequence across Europe to Liechtenstein. He planned the route meticulously in advance and then drove over it with his wife. She complained that moving on every two days was not her idea of a holiday. All the same, she gave him every help and encouragement, even, at times, correcting wayward spelling and punctuation. He also drew on material closer to home. Sometimes, when stuck for a character’s name, he would use those of his friends and, on one occasaion, that of his agent.
Although not as prolific as, say, Dick Francis, who started writing at about the same time and brought out a new thriller every year, Lyall managed both a steady output and an even quality. His books invariably sold well in Britain and, with their international settings, went down well in Europe, Scandinavia and the United States. He rarely got a bad review.
He was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association in 1966-67 having been awarded its Silver Dagger for his books in 1964 and 1965. Growing up in a Quaker household he was not allowed to play with toy guns. Despite this he developed a fascination for weaponry and a wider interest in military history. He edited an anthology of writing about the RAF in the Second World War and with one of his sons wrote a book on war games.
He is survived by his wife and their two sons.
Gavin Lyall, journalist and thriller writer, was born on May 9, 1932. He died on January 18, 2003, aged 70.
January 21, 2003 / Copyright (c) 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd.